Synthetic garments workshop at MoDiP

1 September 2021
In April 2020 (see our post of 20 May 2020) we had the good news that our application to the Art Fund for support for a project in partnership with the Dress and Textiles Specialists’ network and the Plastics SSN had been successful. Its aim is to create a resource focused on synthetic garments with a view to building museum staff skills and confidence in this significant but neglected area. By ‘synthetic’ we mean garments made of materials that have been chemically changed or are entirely manmade. An example of the former is viscose, often called rayon, and of the latter, nylon. 
The intention was to hold workshops with a view to sharing experience and expertise and thereby to gather information for the resource. The timing of the project was such that we were meant to begin just as lockdown got underway so I am delighted to be able to report that we have, at last, managed to hold two workshops. The first was at the V&A’s magnificent Clothworkers’ Centre at Blythe House at the end of April. Lockdown restrictions were such that I was the only person to have the privilege of joining five V&A textile/fashion curators in person but we were fortunate to have further experts join via Zoom from Glasgow Museums and University. The second workshop was held recently at MoDiP where the MoDiP team was joined by three curators from the V&A and one from the Science Museum and again by the colleagues in Glasgow on Zoom. It resulted in a very rewarding day. 

Workshop attendees enjoyed exploring the collection. 
Image credit: MoDiP

MoDiP’s research, with the exception of the exhibition ‘Threads: plastics wearing well’ (, has tended to focus on objects made of hard plastics. Thus this workshop provided a wonderful opportunity for us to learn to look at and see garments through the eyes of textile specialists. I had scrutinised each of the 14 garments in advance and was amazed by how much I had missed. For example, that a blouse sporting a Utility label has a patch in a different material under one of its shoulder pads; a fake fur jacket had been shortened; and another fake fur object, a scarf, which is more convincing as fur to the touch, has a regular effect of striations across its surface when looked at from a certain angle. 


Some of the garments reviewed during the workshop. 
Image credit: MoDiP

Most of the garments we explored have labels specifying the materials of which they are made. For example an undershirt designed as protective clothing for racing drivers is composed of 69% Modal viscose, 28% aramid, 1% carbon fibre and 2% Elastane. I had assumed that it was made of a fibre created from a blend of these materials but learnt that it is more likely that it is the thread with which the garment is sewn together is the carbon fibre element. The reason being that it is much easier to work with than Modal viscose, very strong and maintains functionality at high temperatures. This supposition will be tested by infrared (IR) spectroscopy. An explanation of how this process enables material identification through the creation of a unique spectrum (graph) can be found here:


Sparco Pro Tech RW-9 undershirt, AIBDC : 007097. 
Image credit: MoDiP

I would like to thank our V&A, Science Museum and Glasgow colleagues for making the workshop so useful and enjoyable. Their different approaches have hugely expanded my understanding of the objects we looked at. If only we could submit everything in the collection to this kind of scrutiny and discussion.

Susan Lambert
Chief Curator of MoDiP